Saudi Arabia’s leading Muslim cleric this week issued an unusually blunt statement criticizing Saudi youth who have enlisted in large numbers in violent Islamist movements in Iraq and elsewhere.
The kingdom, a key U.S. ally, has been under pressure from both Washington and Baghdad because of the high number of Saudi nationals among the ranks of foreign insurgents and suicide bombers in Iraq.
The statement issued Monday by Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik marked a break with the low-key approach the kingdom has taken previously about the large number of Saudi jihadists that have signed up for militant Islamist struggles in the recent years.
“This phenomenon has reached the point where our youth have become a commodity bought and sold by elements in both the East and West,” the sheik said in a statement released by the kingdom’s official news agency.
He added, “These Saudis have become convenient knights for whoever wants to foster corruption in the land, and for whoever wants to exploit their zeal, even to the point of turning them into walking bombs who kill themselves in the political or military interests of these dubious parties.”
The Bush administration has loudly protested what it calls meddling by Shi’ite Iran in Iraq, but has more quietly raised concerns about fighters and funds from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states. The flow of aid has bolstered Iraq’s Sunni resistance groups and Iraq’s branch of al Qaeda.
Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak Rubaie, on a visit to Washington this week, blamed 90 percent of the violence in his country on foreign forces, citing Iran and Saudi Arabia as leading offenders. Mr. Rubaie this summer led a delegation to Riyadh to press the government for more help in cutting off the flow of support.
According to studies in 2005 and earlier this year, Saudi volunteers represent the largest single contingent of foreign militants operating in Iraq and make up the majority of the foreign detainees captured by the U.S.-led military coalition.
Saudi recruits famously made up more than three-fourths of the September 11 hijackers, but Saudi radicals have also been implicated in more recent extremist attacks in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as Iraq.
Thomas Lippman, a Saudi specialist at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the grand mufti is essentially an employee of the state and was unlikely to make such a public statement without the approval of the Saudi regime.
“It’s partly a sign that the Saudi government has received the message” about U.S. unhappiness with its efforts in Iraq, Mr. Lippman said. “The government can’t really appeal directly to the radical youths. That has to be done through the mosques.”
But Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi native and director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, noted that the sheik’s statement did not condemn jihad in general, only religious military missions not sanctioned by the government.
“It is well known that jihad is an issue that is the [exclusive] prerogative of the ruler, and that he is the one charged with the obligation to train for it and to train the military,” the grand mufti said.
Mr. al-Ahmed, a critic of the Saudi royal family, called the sheik’s statement “positive but not totally sincere.”
“The real crime for them isn’t jihad. It’s embarrassing the government and disobeying its orders,” he said.